Angels in America
HBO Video, $39.98
If you're feeling intimidated by the advance adulation for this miniseries version of Tony Kushner's Pulitzer-winning play (on disc Sept. 14), take this to heart: It's moving television, and you'll be a puddle on the floor by the end of its six hours, but it ain't perfect.
Kushner's meditation on Reagan-era America during the height of the AIDS crisis is a watershed stage piece; what worked beneath a proscenium doesn't always feel organic to the small screen, however. Director Mike Nichols has the technical prowess and fiercely elegant intellect for the enormous task at hand, yet can't always overcome Kushner's far-too-slavish adaptation of his own work. The dense, delirious stage dialogue often goes clunkety-clunk-clunk here; much of it is distractingly arch outside the heightened confines of the theater. The whole conceit of a speechifying angel, while an enthralling theatrical device, comes across on the boob tube like, well, a theatrical device (which rather leaves Emma Thompson, hovering gamely in heavenly garb, stuck in midair). I'd also like to suggest that Justin Kirk, who plays Prior, the recently AIDS-diagnosed dreamer whose visions provide the story's heart, is a shallow actor and much too beautiful to portray a gay everyman.
Everyone else, however, is magnificent: Al Pacino does career-best work as Roy Cohn, the duplicitous D.C. homosexual in denial of his virus; Meryl Streep heads deeper into what are proving to be the most interesting years of her career as a resilient Mormon mother (and she's unrecognizable in her dual appearance as an elderly male rabbi); Jeffrey Wright repeats his stage triumph as Cohn's volatile nurse; Ben Schenkman is appropriately heartbroken and bastardly as Prior's lover Louis; and Mary-Louise Parker is extraordinary in a seemingly unplayable role as the delusional, discursive, pill-popping wife of a closeted young Republican (Patrick Wilson, a name to watch).
Kushner's compassion finally overrides whatever else doesn't perfectly translate. The force of his anger and his humane benevolence to even the fiendish Cohn date not a bit in a political climate that's trying to reposition Reagan as a heroic father figure. Angels insists that everybody is responsible for everybody else, and that we can change the heavens if we'd only demand the same thing.
Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
2004 HAS NOT been much of a year for romance movies, one reason this brain-teasing heart trip (on DVD Sept. 28) resonates so deeply—and will likely reach many critics' top-10 lists this December. But Mind is anything but your formulaic rom-com, thanks to the pretzel-chronology script by Charlie Kaufman (Being John Malkovich) and thrift-shop visual style of French director Michel Gondry. Jim Carrey and Kate Winslet meet cute on the beach at Montauk, but they've actually fallen in love before—then forgotten each other thanks to elective brain scrubbing by a low-rent firm called Lacuna. None of this is remotely clear until midway through the picture, and the cast and filmmakers freely admit on the single disc's extras that they were often scrambled themselves during the filming. "We'd get confused," admits Carrey in one of two short featurettes. Sharing the commentary track with Gondry, Kaufman says, "We always wanted it to be a movie that people would see more than once." (Later, he adds that up to four viewings may be necessary to tease out the full story in all its looking-glass complexity.)
One of Mind's great virtues, and truths, as a love story is how flawed and fallible its lovers are. Winslet calls her character "a foul-mouthed lunatic," while Carrey's glum, passive-aggressive loner is miles removed from his usual exuberant, likable clowns. They're totally wrong for each other—hence the brainwashing, hence their prior sorrow—and totally right for each other at the same time. Since at least half the movie takes place inside Carrey's noggin while technicians zap his memories of Winslet, the effect is something like rosy spectacles in reverse: The good recollections get stripped away with the bad. What's left is no Hollywood ideal of romance, but a warts-and-all relationship based as much in uncertainty as desire.
Even if the extras aren't overwhelming, the garrulous, thickly accented Gondry and terse, logical Kaufman make an entertaining team. When the former, trying to explain a camera effect, describes placing a "goose" on the lens, Kaufman gently corrects: "I think you mean 'gauze.'"
Coffee & Cigarettes
Out Sept. 21, Jim Jarmusch's anthology film Coffee & Cigarettes will have you fast-forwarding through its duller episodes. The first three Star Wars movies finally reach DVD, augmented by all sorts of extras glorifying the supposed genius of George Lucas. An even better collection is Criterion's eight-disc, five-title John Cassavetes box set. Also look for the profane, hilarious Hughes brothers' documentary American Pimp. Earlier this month, seven Hitchcock vintage movies including Suspicion were released (plus an additional two-disc special edition of Strangers on a Train).
Also out recently: Denzel Washington's bloodfest Man on Fire; George Lucas' chilly 1971 THX 1138; and Mario Van Peebles' '70s tribute (both admiring and critical) to his underground filmmaker father, Melvin, Baadasssss!